Saturday, December 26, 2009

Alan E. Cober, Drawing Life

Cover and back cover of The Dark Is Rising
For many years beginning early in high school, I would reread Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising just before Christmas. The book takes place in the days leading up to and just after Christmas, as its 11-year-old protagonist Will learns that he is the last of the Old Ones, a supernatural race of beings who protect humans from the forces of The Dark. It's a near-perfect book for adolescents, combining the wish to find out you're special with glimpses of British mythology, heavy snow, menacing characters, and a primeval flood. Oh, and the whole world depends on you!

I might never have read the book at all, though, if it hadn't been for its illustrations. I first saw them in a freshman English class while reading one of those compilations of excerpts and short stories sometimes use in schools. This brand-new collection included a few chapters of Dark, which was then newly published, along with at least one of the striking illustrations by Alan E. Cober.

Black and white pen and ink spread with man sitting on a horse. The man's head looks like that of an antlered animal
Created in pen and ink, Cober's images are both detailed and disorderly, nightmarish and fascinating. This drawing of Herne the Hunter (a mythic figure from the Thames River valley where the story is set) transfixed me for years.

Close up of a man's head from the cover
I'm not sure, but I think the cover image was the one included in the excerpt I saw at school. It could have been this portrayal of the character called the Walker that caught my attention, but it also could have been the ink splatters. I had never seen anything like those in school-book artwork before. (In case you were wondering, this drawing predates Freddy Krueger by more than 10 years.)

Alan E. Cober was a prominent illustrator who died in 1998 at the age of 62. He didn't specialize in children's books (although he did publish a book for children called Cober's Animals) but was instead known for his editorial illustrations in the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Life and many other magazines. According to the Times obituary:

Mr. Cober was one of a small group of American illustrators who injected the precepts of modern art into commercial art. His magazine illustrations rejected realistic painting for expressive and symbolic drawing and water-color rendering. They did not mimic a passage of a text, as was the convention, but complemented it with interpretation. Such work is common now, but Mr. Cober was among those who fought for its acceptance.
Cober also published books of his drawings as social commentary and critique, one about institutionalized people called The Forgotten Society (1972) and another not long before his death, The Wake-up Call, about a range of issues -- drugs, AIDS, toxic chemicals and hazardous waste. (See this short essay by Steven Heller about Cober's works of social commentary.)

He taught at the University at Buffalo, the University of Georgia, the Illustrators Workshop, and the Ringling School of Art and Design, and -- as evidenced by the comments of many illustrators in response to Elwood Smith's recent remembrance of Cober on Drawger (a blog for illustrators) -- influenced many of the best artists working today.

Surprisingly to me, 84 of Cober's illustrations can still be licensed for editorial use on There is no published collection of his work, although his daughter, Leslie Cober-Gentry, recently promised Elwood Smith she would send scans that could be posted to Drawger.

Cober's entry on the Wikipedia is a three-sentence stub. Or it was until a few minutes ago... I just added a few essentials to it.


Elwood H. Smith said...

Hi, No. 3, that's a lovely article about Alan E. Cober.

I heard recently from his daughter, Leslie, and she said Alan is to be inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame on June 24, 2011. In addition, his superb, long out-of-print book The Forgotten Society is scheduled to be released soon by Dover Books.

Best Wishes,
-Elwood H Smith

Daughter Number Three said...

Thank you, Elwood. It's good to hear both bits of news. I look forward very much to seeing The Forgotten Society!

Peter M said...

A nice post. I read the Cober illustrated version of The Dark is Rising when I was a kid, and still re-read parts of it even now. His illustrations really added to the creepy/magical tone of the book.